Leonard Reed, Chapter One, continued
continued from here
Today, it might be a little difficult for people to understand that in 1937--- even before he became the champ---Joe Louis was already world famous, even more than most movie stars or politicians. And here I was, thirty years old, having just gotten into a business association with this great athlete. Now, the whole setup might go down the drain: The events leading up to my lying flat on my back in a Michigan hospital now were crystal clear.
Five days earlier, the restaurant that Joe and I had just set up in Detroit, the Chicken Shack, was running smooth as silk, so as a reward to myself I had gone to a performance of the show Shuffle Along in Detroit. In the chorus there was this real beauty, and since I could never resist a gorgeous show girl, almost before the curtain went down I was backstage coming on to her. She couldn't go out with me that night, but I wasn't about to give up that easy.
"If I drive to Flint will you go out with me?," I asked. Flint was about sixty miles from Detroit and was where Shuffle Along was headed next.
"Sure, “ she said.
Maybe she thought I'd forget all about it, but a few nights later, I borrowed Joe's car, asked a guy I knew by the name of Big Hat to come along as company; and off I went to Flint hoping to get laid.
I saw Shuffle Along again, and when it was over, I was backstage in a flash. The girl, though, was acting kind of funny. She hemmed and hawed, and then let me have it: "I can't do nothin'," she said. "My old man's here. I didn't know he was coming down. . ." And so on and so forth. .. love's old sweet song.
I was pissed. Here I'd driven all the to Flint, sat again through a show I hadn't particularly liked in the first place. . .and now this routine. I didn't even try and snag another date, but with Big Hat at the wheel of the car, I just climbed in the back to get some sleep, and off we started back to Detroit.
I don't know how long I was out, but the next thing I knew, I was jolted awake by the skreech of brakes and honking of horns. Looking over the back seat, I was blinded by lights heading straight at us. I reached around, hit Big Hat under the chin, and at the last second managed to grab the wheel and steer us out of the path of an oncoming truck. Right into a telephone pole! Upside down we went, with Big Hat thrown free, but me remaining in the back seat to go down with the ship. Even though I could feel that I was broken nearly in two, all I could think as I lost consciousness was my promise to Joe never to let anyone ever drive his car but me.
"God damn that Big Hat," I swore to myself, and then I went out like a light.
The headline splashed across the front page of the January 23, 1937 Chicago Defender told it all:
"LEN REED HURT IN AUTO OF LOUIS' KIN; FIGHTS FOR LIFE
"Actor-Emcee Tossed From Car At Flint.
Auto Is Demolished As It Hits Post Coming Out Sharp Curve"
It said that my pelvic bones had been crushed and that my bladder punctured. A suspected "possible fracture of the skull," though, turned out to be a false alarm.
But where the Defender, the black Chicago daily, had been pretty much low key about what had happened, the headlines and story in the Pittsburgh Courier were right out of today's super market tabloids.
"Leonard Reed, Nationally-Known Producer, Is Seriously Injured In Automobile Accident" its headline read, followed by a screwed-up account which suggested that a white woman had been in the car with me, thus causing "a shroud of mystery" to hover over the crash. And just below the main headline was another nearly as large: "Leonard Reed Known In Theatrical World As 'Great Lover."
This one was accompanied by yet a another story ticking off a number of women with whom I'd been linked romantically; along with a photo of me in a tuxedo next to a photo of "Alma Smith, former Grand Terrace beauty." The caption read: "Great Lover And One Of His Friends." The Courier also got it wrong about me being at the wheel when the accident happened, but that wasn't the paper's fault. I told one of the cops that, because I didn't want it to get back to Joe that I'd let someone else drive his car.
I first met Joe Louis in '36 in Detroit. It was Easter Sunday, right after he'd fought and won one of his first major bouts, the one where he ko'd Charlie Retzlaff in the first round. He had come into the Plantation Club to see one of the Cotton Club-style shows I had been staging there for the past year or so.
Detroit's Plantation, like New York's Cotton Club, was a whites only club, with strictly colored entertainers, but on Sunday afternoons they had what was called a "blue hour" when blacks were allowed to come to see the show. By then, Joe was such a big deal, especially in Detroit, that he could probably have come into the Plantation any time of the day or night he wanted to, but he happened to choose "blue hour."
I often appeared in my shows; and when I did, clothes horse that I was, I changed suits after every number in which I appeared. Then, after the finale, I'd come out in a bathrobe, say 'That's all folks,' go backstage, change one last time into something real sharp and come out to mingle with the crowd. I still remember what I was wearing after the show the day Joe came in: a white linen suit with a purple shirt and tie, and tan-and-white shoes! The first words Joe Louis ever spoke to me weren't about the show, but about my clothes. What was the material? Who made them? I told him I'd be happy to introduce him to my tailor in Cleveland some time: But Joe couldn't wait.
Come sun-up, the next morning, a chauffeur-driven car with Joe and his girlfriend on board, picked me up and a dancer from my chorus line, Mary Stevens. So off we went on the 240-mile drive to Cleveland.
The store, Lyon Clothing, was over on Euclid Avenue, and when my tailor saw me walk in with Joe Louis, he got so excited and made such a fuss that, within a few minutes, the entire neighborhood had begun to crowd around the place. Joe walked up and down the aisles saying to the tailor, "Gimme two of those, some of these, and lotsa those." By now, all of Euclid Avenue was blocked by crowds of people as the four of us walked out of the store into the mob wearing wraparound camel-hair coats-the rage that season-that Joe had bought for us.
The next time I saw Joe was few weeks later, under much different circumstances. I was flat on my back with the flu---for some reason the newspapers had reported this as "a nervous breakdown"---when I heard a knock at the door of my hotel room which was over top the Plantation Club, and in he walks. He looked down at me for a second, then asked,
"What you doing in bed?"
"I caught cold going up and down these damn stairs. One of these days
I'm going to get out of this goddamn show business and do something else." I was just babbling.
"And if you got out, what would you do then?"
"I don't know." I thought a moment, then I said the first thing that came to my mind: "Open up a restaurant. Maybe a Chicken Shack, I suppose. There's none in Detroit."
"Well, if you opened up a chicken shack, you'd have to have a lot of money."
"Yeah," I said.
"I'd need about $5,000 to open up." I really didn't know: I was only guessing.
"Well, if it takes $5,000 to open it, it'd take another $5,000 to run it,
"That ought to be a good business. I'll be back."
Three hours later he returned with $10,000 in large bills, put it on my bed, and said, "Let's open the Chicken Shack. Use this for your expenses and after I get my money back, we split everything 50/50."
Who ever heard of a deal like that? No papers. No contract. No nothing.
"I'll talk to you later," he said, and walked out.
Here I was, not even knowing where I was going to open this place, and already I had $10,000. I would soon discover, that was typical Joe behavior; and, some years later, he even came to playing fast and loose with my money.
I locked my door and hid the money under my mattress, and thought about the whole idea hard for the next 24 hours. I knew Joe knew what he was doing, because even though he didn't have an education, he wasn't dumb like some people think. He had good sense.
The next day, I began looking for a place to open up our business, and finally found one over on East Verna Highway, at number 424. An old house for sale costing $6,000. I put $2,000 down, moved in, and then started hiring help to fix it up.
In early December, the headline over my "Nightlife in Detroit" column in the Chicago Defender announced: "Len Reed Forsakes Show Biz For Chicken Shack Adventure in Detroit." Further down, it talked about my New Years resolution "to never appear before the public as an actor throughout the entire year of 1937 for pay."
But 1936 had not turned to '37 yet, and I was still not only producing and appearing in my shows at the Plantation. I was also continuing to write my newspaper column and pulling together the Chicken Shack. I don't think I've ever worked harder in my life. By night I was still barking out orders to a stageful of dancers and singers; now, by day, I had turned into some kind of crazy interior decorator from outer space.
"Upstairs," I told my builders, "I want it to look just like a barnyard. I want booths. I want sawdust on the floor. That pipe that's running up there---I want it to be a tree. I want real tree bark on it."
In the front, I had them put an old dray carriage with a table right in the middle and throw in two more chairs so it would seat four people. My plans grew wilder and wilder.
I got an old wagon wheel and had lanterns hanging down from it. Then I put a big circular bar against the back wall in one of the bedrooms. Between the living room and the house's original dining room I knocked out a wall, but for safety's sake I had to leave the huge doorway. Between the kitchen and an adjoining bedroom I knocked out yet another wall, doubling the size of the original kitchen. I put a baby grand piano in. It was real plush. The finishing touch was three little Ford coupes I bought. I put heaters in their trunk so that takeout orders stayed warm till they arrived---our motto was "We Deliver It Hot"---and I put little electric signs on the back that said "Leonard Reed's Chicken Shack. "
Coming from the wilds of Oklahoma where I grew up, I knew all the names of chickens: Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island Red, the Dominecker, and over the next four weeks I learned how to buy and cook them. I found out how much flour it took to make biscuits, how much each pat of butter cost. My instructor, a guy by the name of Ernie, was a friend of Joe's from Chicago. Ernie was a restauranteur, another dumb-uneducated-but-smart guy who had made a mint like Joe. He was the sort who'd say he was taking the "twah", instead of T.W.A. Ernie not only taught me cooking, he also showed me how cashiers could steal from you, and things like how the butcher and the seller could work together to con you.
All the while, my private life remained as wild as ever. The Pittsburgh Courier had me "slated to wed a Detroit girl. Guess who?" But I wasn't even divorced from my first wife, and the so-called engagement was nothing more than a big romance that was going on between myself and this "mystery girl," who happened to be the daughter of a General Motors executive.
Around this time, my still-legal wife, Anna Jones, swooped into town from Chicago. She'd been carrying on a big affair with the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, but a local column made it seem like things were all sweetness and light between us:
"Mrs. Leonard Reed (Anna Jones) is another charming and beautiful lady who seems to have met Santa Claus on the way here. She has 'upset' Detroit with her stunning Parisian creations and that continental speech of hers, with those broad 'a's, is too ducky for words."
She'd come to town because she smelled money coming from my association with Joe, but when she found out that none of it was coming her way, she left as fast as she'd come. Things were civil between us when she was there, but that was about all, and just as soon as I could, I planned to get back to Chicago to file for divorce. She'd messed up several important deals in my life already, and I wasn't about to let her screw things up between Joe and me.
We were set to open the Chicken Shack a couple of days before Christmas, but I was doing double duty putting together my final show at the Plantation, "Santa Claus Comes To Town," so the opening was pushed forward to Xmas Eve and finally to New Year's Eve, a deadline we were, at last, able to meet.
During all this time, Joe's connection with the Chicken Shack wasn't made public, because it wouldn't have seemed right to have the Champ's name associated with something like a chicken restaurant. But most people "in the know" in Detroit were aware he was a silent partner, and a lot of the pre-opening publicity featured his name.
Opening night of "the Shack" was just like the first night of a Broadway show or a movie premiere. Search lights lit up the sky, and there was even a real Broadway star on hand---Tallulah Bankhead. She brought along the cast from a show of hers playing in Detroit, and we played piano and sang all night. Being from the South, Tallulah loved chicken and biscuits, and for the next few nights, while her show was in town, she stopped by after every performance. Of course, Joe was at the opening, too; and so was just about everybody else---black or white---who was anybody in Detroit. The "Shack" was a SMASH. As big as any I'd ever had in show business. Then, just as fast as it had come, it seemed as if it might be all over because of the car wreck.
Spokesmen for the hospital told reporters that I had no little or no chance of surviving, and as a result, one newspaper jumped the gun and ran my obituary.
More than a half-century later, Leonard Reed is happy to set the record straight about premature reports of his passing. You don't have to try too hard to get him to supply you with details about his past. But as for the actual year he was born, it's anybody's guess. "Your guess is as good as mine," he says, "it was somewhere between 1906 to 1909 on January, 7th." He doesn't know for sure, because birth records for blacks and Indians weren't generally kept back then."I usually stick with 1907," he laughs, "because that seems old enough for anybody."
Reed was born on an Indian reservation in Lightning Creek, Oklahoma in either Oklahoma, or what was once Oklahoma territory. . .depending on the year of his birth. And if 1907 is correct, then Reed came into the world before Oklahoma was even granted statehood, and right after Native Americans were finally granted U.S. citizenship in 1906. He was born at nearly the turn of the century in a teepee:
"Most people find that hard to believe, but I don't just make these things up. "
The frame house that Reed's mother lived in with her mother and grandmother was a half-mile from a Cherokee reservation. A few weeks before she was due to give birth found her visiting her great grandmother (a full Choctaw who had married a part-black, part Cherokee) when she went into early labor. The upshot: Reed was delivered by a tribal midwife, while all around the fur and animal skin teepee, Indians announced his birth circling the dwelling, he was later told, in a frenzy of ceremonial dancing."You can tell just by looking at me that my dad was white," says Reed. Although he possesses a photo of his father, he never met the man, and has only a single memory of his mother shortly after her death, when he was two:
"They put nickels on her eyes to close them, and I remember her face from trying, like any child would, to reach down into the coffin and grab at the bright shiny coins." The stuff that dreams---not to mention nightmares---are made of, much later Reed recalled that the ghoulish incident had been on his mind when he finally came to in Detroit.
Next Sunday, March 25: Chapter Two: In Passing